Stephen Harper has stuffed measures into the Conservative government's new budget bill that would change the balance of power in relations between Ottawa and public sector unions – including giving federal employers the power to unilaterally designate parts of the bureaucracy as an essential service that cannot strike.
The Public Service Alliance called the move an attack on the rights of hundreds of thousands of civil servants, and labour lawyers said it is a fundamental change in Ottawa's relations with its work force.
"This is virtually eviscerating collective bargaining for public servants," said Steven Barrett, a labour lawyer with Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP in Toronto.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement told The Globe and Mail the measure is part of "transforming and modernizing the public service negotiation architecture" in Ottawa as the government works to balance the budget by 2015.
The changes are packed inside an omnibus budget bill that contains unrelated measures including sweeping new powers that would enable the federal cabinet to place anyone from the governor of the Bank of Canada to opposition MPs under a stricter conflict-of-interest regime.
Mr. Barrett questioned why the government buried the public sector labour relations measures in a budget implementation bill instead of tabling them as separate legislation "that could be properly debated rather than smuggled in through the back door."
The legislation would grant Ottawa "the exclusive right" to determine whether any "service, facility or activity of the government of Canada is essential because it is, or will be necessary for the safety or security of the public or a segment of the public."
Currently, according to Aaron Scheewe, acting director of communications for Mr. Clement's office, unions can effectively veto Ottawa's efforts to designate some government jobs as essential services.
"That's why we're moving to make it fair."
The measures would make it harder for unions to seek binding arbitration for labour negotiations. "Currently, the unions alone have the choice to send disputes to arbitration," Mr. Scheewe said.
Under the proposed legislative changes, talks with bargaining units in which less than 80 per cent of staff are deemed essential would go to an arbitrator only if both sides agree.
Critics said these changes would reduce the leverage of bargaining units. If, for instance, 79 per cent of a bargaining unit is designated as essential – and cannot strike – only 21 per cent of the work force could use job action as a lever.
"You can imagine the effectiveness of strike action if nearly 80 per cent of the work force is designated essential," Mr. Barrett said. "Basically you can designate so many workers as essential that you make collective bargaining fruitless or meaningless."
In units where 80 per cent or more of staff are deemed essential, talks would be automatically sent to arbitration if they reach an impasse.
The legislation also says an arbitrator setting pay levels would have to give preponderant weight to "fiscal circumstances."
Separately, the budget bill would let cabinet say who is covered by federal conflict-of-interest rules. Those affected may have to disclose assets, sell securities or put them in a blind trust and accept restrictions on employment after leaving office.
"While I expect that the government feels that cabinet would use this power to cover someone like the governor of the Bank of Canada, the proposed power is sweeping," said Guy Giorno, a lawyer and former Harper chief of staff whose practice includes accountability and ethics laws. "It could be used to bring backbench MPs under the Conflict of Interest Act, as well as Opposition leaders, House of Commons employees, and anyone else the cabinet wants."